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Why It’s Okay For Christians To Say ‘Gay’

An orthodox Catholic theologian takes issue with the Nashville Statement

Christopher C. Roberts is an orthodox Roman Catholic theologian and a personal friend of mine. I quote Chris’s book, Creation And Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage in my book The Benedict Option. Chris deeply understands and accepts traditional Christian teaching on marriage, gender, and the rest. My guess is that he would endorse almost all of the Nashville Statement issued this week by conservative Evangelicals.

But he does not agree with the Nashville Statement’s affirmation in Article VII that chaste Christians attracted to their own sex should not identify themselves as gay.

In this e-mail, which I publish with his permission, Roberts, who is also a Roman Catholic deacon, explains why:

If I had a drinking problem, and I were to call myself an alcoholic, nobody would assume that I am making an ontological or anthropological claim, or denying that alcoholism is a problem. Instead, if I were to say that I am an alcoholic, hopefully the people in my life would admire my candor and vulnerability.

Somebody who says “I am an alcoholic” means to say that I am identifying a problem in myself, a problem arising from a complex mixture of nature and nurture, a problem that involves personal accountability and my wayward appetites, but also with a habitual aspect and (probable) genetic/chemical aspects that to a greater or lesser extent undermines my freedom of choice in profound ways.

By saying “I am an alcoholic,” I am also identifying to some extent with a culture and a tribe that includes both alcoholics who are faithfully struggling to stay sober as well as alcoholics who are off the wagon and defiantly clinging to their bottle; simply by saying “I am an alcoholic,” nobody knows which group I’m a part of. All you know is that I have a certain vulnerability or weakness, and that, if I say my prayers and get the right support, this vulnerability/weakness can also be a gateway to deeper service and intimacy with other people.

For example, because I am able to say that I’m an alcoholic, another alcoholic, or somebody struggling with another problem, perhaps a sin that is socially taboo to own as one’s own in church (e.g., pornography or infidelity in marriage), may feel able to approach me honestly. Because I am able to say that I’m an alcoholic, my weakness is also an openness to friendships and ministries that would be closed to me if I stood aloof and pretended not to identify with this tribe of sinners.

Most any result of the fall — having Down’s Syndrome or Aspergers, having a short temper or being greedy — can be like this. Substitute any disability, sin, proclivity or “thorn in the flesh” in the above paragraph, and you can imagine cases where somebody matured, embraced the necessary asceticism, and turned their weakness or woundedness to spiritual profit.

I respect many of the writers who want to use “same sex attraction” instead of “gay” or “lesbian.” Often these are people who think carefully on a range of subjects, and are used to making helpful intellectual distinctions. I profoundly respect orthodox Christians who are wary of using words from the culture that may inadvertently smuggle anti-theological premises into our thinking. In my life as a theologian and a deacon, I see how inadvertently accepting premises from the culture, premises which implicitly secularize our lives and undermine our discipleship, is a pervasive problem in many areas of life. It is right to be on alert to this common modern problem.

But I don’t think that this legitimate fear necessarily has to be the case in wondering whether to say “gay” or “same sex attracted.” More likely, the alcoholic analogy makes me think that insisting on SSA when “gay” will do is too scrupulous, and scruples are often harmful. The alcoholic analogy isn’t perfect – no analogy is – but it’s close enough.

Because also: if you want to reach the alcoholics who are struggling, on the edge, wondering if they should come to your AA meeting, then you need to learn to welcome them even before they are fully sober. Call yourself and them “alcoholic,” and not the more clinically precise “people struggling with desires for OH organic compounds bonded to saturated carbon atoms” (thanks Wikipedia). If you use the stilted terminology, they will suspect that being around you is likely to be claustrophobic and odd, which is not the best way to get alongside somebody who needs support.

Which is why I do not say “people struggling with same sex attraction” when “gay” works. If, from time to time, I meet an alcoholic who needs to use a different vocabulary for some reasons, OK, I can do that on a case by case basis; if there is a particular person who needs to not call themselves “gay” but say “same sex attracted” because he or she needs to break with gay culture in certain ways, OK, I am happy to pivot and use different words. But that would be a case by case basis, and need not be a one size fits all prescription.

I also want to say this – for Catholics like me interested in discerning whether to say “same sex attracted” versus “gay” — note that it is not something the magisterium or the CDF has ruled on. There is room within orthodox Catholicism for charitable debate on this question. This is a fraught moment in the Church, and the problem of theological vagueness and too much openness to the culture is real. But on this particular question, please do not read out of the Church as heretics anyone who disagrees with you. If we want to get this right, we need to sift through all the voices, so let’s conduct that debate at a temperature low enough that we can all think and pray together.

I welcome comments on this post, but if you’re only going to rant, engage in “whataboutism,” and the like, save yourself the trouble, because I’m not going to post it.



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